After the Azotea
In this piece, I consider Reina María Rodríguez’s recent poetry within a broader discussion of her ongoing work to create an archipelagic, transnational space of identity.
I first met award-winning Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez in 2003, during a month-long trip to Havana. I remember climbing the stairs that led to her rooftop home, known as the Azotea, on the Calle Ánimas; and I remember sitting there for hours with my fellow graduate students and others. Drinking tea and listening to her talk about Cuban poetry, I recall leaning forward to hear Rodríguez’s quiet voice over the sounds of the street below.
Now almost 20 years later, the space of the Azotea has become a storied site associated with Rodríguez’s creation of an alternate space of identity: a space where writers, artists, and intellectuals gathered to share their work and ideas during the difficult years of the “Special Period,” the years of extreme scarcities that followed the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union (and its economic aid). It was in the Azotea in 1995, for instance, that Rodríguez’s close friend Antonio José Ponte first read his controversial, landmark essay “El abrigo de aire” (The Jacket of Air), about the need to demythologize national hero José Martí. It was in this space as well that another of Rodríguez’s close friends, poet Ricardo Alberto Pérez, enjoyed conversations with what he later characterized as a close-knit community of like-minded letrados.
Currently, I’m writing about the Azotea within a larger project about Cuban writers and artists. When I tell colleagues about this, they often ask if I still visit Rodríguez there, and, if so, if they might be able to accompany me. “Can I go with you? I’d love to see it!”, they say, as though the Azotea were a museum, or a sacred space.
As it so happens, I have only returned once to the Azotea in recent years, when Rodríguez —who now travels frequently abroad— was in Havana at the same time that I was and invited me to join her there for dinner. I have, however, seen the poet many times in other spaces (including cafés, lecture halls, and bookstores), and often email her with questions or call to say hello.
While commentary on Rodríguez often emphasizes the Azotea, and therefore the importance of space in the 1990s, I have been thinking about the new realities of the twenty-first century. During my recent encounters with Rodríguez, I have been struck by the fact that the poet continues to create a space for artistic and intellectual exchange wherever she is, even as this space is now untethered from any one singular site.
When Rodríguez invited me to meet her for coffee at a local café in Havana in 2015, for instance, she also invited along poets who were visiting from Bangladesh, in effect hosting an impromptu literary salon similar to those that she once held in her home. When I called to talk to her one day in 2019, she told me she was in a café in New York City, meeting with friends, caring for relatives who were along for the ride, and somehow, in between it all, still carving out time to write, just as she always has.
I now see that the “placement” of her poetics has always been multiple, not singular. Indeed, the poet’s rooftop home is but one of a number of sites she used to hold gatherings in Havana in the 1990s and early 2000s. Aforementioned poet Ricardo Alberto Pérez recalls in a 2018 interview that Rodríguez held informal gatherings in parks and plazas at the same time that she hosted guests at her home. In the early 2000s, moreover, Rodríguez began to hold gatherings in the so-called Torre de Letras (Tower of Letters), a space for cultural events located on Havana’s Plaza de Armas; when the Torre was no longer available for use, she moved the gatherings to a building on the Calle Obispo.
In fact, it was during the gatherings held at the Torre that Rodríguez first met poet Ramón Hondal, marking the beginning of a close friendship and collaboration emblematized, most recently, in their ongoing work together on a series of literary titles selected by Rodríguez, edited by Hondal, and published under the imprint Colección Torre de Letras.
Rodríguez has thus consistently worked to forge an alternate space of identity for writers, artists, and intellectuals —a space that is separate from those more directly sponsored by the state— even as it has never truly been possible to anchor this space in the Azotea, or, indeed, anywhere at all.
The need for an untethered, unfixed space such as the one that Rodríguez creates has clearly been important since the heyday of the Azotea in the 1990s. I would suggest, however, that it has, perhaps, become even more critical in recent years, when almost all the writers who once gathered with the poet in Havana have relocated elsewhere.
In her insightful introduction to this issue, Rodríguez’s translator Kristin Dykstra references Cuba’s long history of transnational migration by invoking the nation’s diaspora. In my own work, I expand on this description by using the term archipelago, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “any sea, or sheet of water, in which there are numerous islands [. . . ] a group of islands.”
While Cuba is in fact a geographical archipelago, composed of 1,600 islands, islets, and keys, I employ the term in recognition of the fact that an archipelago is both singular and plural. Much as is true of the spaces that comprise “Cuba” in the present, as Cubans increasingly live in a transnational array of locations, the archipelago is simultaneously one and many, scattered and singular.
In line with this characterization of Cuba as a transnational archipelago, I propose that Rodríguez’s creation of an alternate space of identity for writers, artists, and intellectuals might be seen as archipelagic as well. Holding gatherings in a multiplicity of spaces that, together, form a larger, interconnected, whole, after the Azotea could, in this sense, also be concurrent with it. Along with the Torre, cafés in Havana and New York, and other spaces such as lecture halls and bookstores, could not the Azotea be one of a number of spaces that, together, form an archipelagic constellation?
The sense of untethered, archipelagic possibility in this characterization of the space that Rodríguez creates is amplified in her poetry. Rodríguez’s poems are often difficult to anchor, continually “escaping us,” as Dykstra writes of translating Rodríguez’s lyrical work into English in The Winter Garden Photograph (2019).
The 1992 poem “la detención del tiempo,” or “time’s arrest,” for instance, begins with a query about the possibility of temporal coexistence that invokes the multiplicity inherent to the archipelago. The poet then goes on to remind readers that water too has memory, in a nod to the interconnectedness of islands and waterways that is also intrinsic to the archipelago:
para mí es la memoria del agua y ahora sé que el agua tiene memoria [. . .] el agua es transparente y te engaña, no todo lo que dejas caer en ellas es el olvido.
[for me it’s the memory of the water and now I know that the water has memory [. . .] the water is transparent and it fools you. not everything that you drop into its forms is oblivion.] (tr. Kristin Dykstra)
Cuba is often characterized as an island, even though it is in fact an archipelago. Here, in her reference to “the memory of the water,” Rodríguez signals the need to recognize Cuba’s archipelagic multiplicity, and to remember the importance of water in addition to land. With “time’s arrest” permitting a momentary simultaneity, furthermore, the space of the Cuban archipelago is both situated in time and in existence somewhere beyond it.
Rodríguez again establishes the importance of water in her 1994 poem “Paso de nubes” (Passage of Clouds). While the poet implicitly calls attention to Cuba’s long transnational history of migration in her allusions to water and memory in “detención de tiempo,” in “Paso de nubes” she more specifically recalls the precarious balsas, or rafts, that carry so many Cubans out to sea in the early 1990s:
Algunas [balsas] se hundirán para siempre entre la arena y la resaca; otras tocarán el límite. Siempre sospecharemos cuál encalló, cuál regresó, la que habrá llegado. Es una Isla, con sus niños que han jugado, al crecer, con sus balsas.
[Some boats will sink for good between the sand and the undertow; others will touch up against the line of limitation. We’ll always have our suspicions about the one that ran aground, the one that came back, the one that made land. This is an Island; the children grew up playing with its rafts.] (tr. Kristin Dykstra)
In contradistinction with prevalent characterizations of Cuba as an isolated island frozen in time, Rodríguez’s descriptions of balsas and balseros in “Paso de nubes” remind readers of the nation’s long-standing transnational ties.
Cuban migrants have long arrived on distant shores by sea (as in the case of the balseros), by air (in the case of those privileged to have a plane ticket and a visa), and, more recently, by foot (in the case of those Cuban migrants who increasingly attempt to cross into the United States from Mexico). With the ever more transnational migration from “la Isla” (the Island), the line separating one space from another is ever more porous, becoming, as the poet states in the concluding line of “Paso de nubes,” “un límite impreciso” (some vague boundary).
In the 2020 poem “Una manzana mordida y un ratón” (An apple core and a mouse), Rodríguez alludes to her own increasingly transnational travel in her description of the time she spends in Miami, where her daughter now lives. Recounting the story of how a mouse jumped out of a toilet in her daughter’s Miami apartment, she insinuates that life in the United States is far from the luxurious “American dream” that many would-be migrants might imagine.
Un ratón que sale del inodoro,
y te salta encima
sin traer loterías
[A mouse who pops out of the toilet
and lands on you
bringing no sign that you’ll win the lottery
or other consolations.] (tr. Kristin Dykstra)
Suggesting that a toilet-popping mouse is more likely than a winning lottery ticket, Rodríguez calls into question prevalent characterizations of the United States as a Hollywood-tinged land of dreams.
At the same time, Rodríguez neatly undoes the dichotomous thinking that underlies depictions of Cuban buildings as antiquated and U.S. buildings as “modern,” signaling the similarities between both spaces, as well as between their inhabitants.
Un ratón salta encima de ti,
y aunque estemos
en una ciudad moderna,
dice la verdad sobre las cloacas,
la avaricia en cualquier parte,
[A mouse lands on you.
Though we may live
in some modern city,
this shows the truth about the sewers,
the avarice anyplace,] (tr. Kristin Dykstra)
With the issues of antiquated plumbing and age-old greed salient even in the “ciudad moderna” (modern city), Rodríguez intimates that cities are connected by their similarities, as well as the waters that run through their sewer pipes.
As Rodríguez’s tale of mice and men suggests, the poet now spends an increasing amount of time away from her home in Havana. Indeed, I had hoped to see Rodríguez in Havana last February, when I attended the annual Feria del Libro (Book Fair) shortly before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but was unable to do so. Rodríguez had been in Havana visiting friends and family, but she had already departed for Miami by the time I arrived. I asked poet Ramón Hondal if he thought that Rodríguez would one day return to Havana as her singular, grounded home, and he responded that he did not think so. Life here, he said, has become too difficult.
One afternoon toward the end of my time in Havana last year, I walked with Hondal from the Pabellón Olímpico to a café in Centro Habana run by Rodríguez’s son and daughter-in-law. Located on a bustling street, the café is just a short distance from the Alma Mater bookstore where Rodríguez has often held gatherings in Havana in recent years. The café is bright and welcoming, with lights hanging from the ceilings and black-and-white photographs of Havana on the walls. It is clearly designed primarily for tourists, but Rodríguez and her friends often gather here when she is in town, and her son greeted Hondal enthusiastically.
As we sat waiting for our coffee, Hondal took a selfie of us at our table and sent it to Rodríguez. A few minutes later the phone dinged with her response: “Qué bien!” Hondal later surreptitiously posted the photo to Facebook, where he showed me it had received some 20 likes by the next day.
In addition to making me laugh (I hadn’t realized that my picture was being taken, nor that it would be posted to Facebook), the encounter served as a reminder that Rodríguez continues to invoke and create an alternate space in which writers might gather, be it in person, on the page, or, increasingly, online.
With this small, twenty-first-century moment in mind, I see a final reason not to reduce place to one single, geographical location. What comes after the Azotea might, in fact, co-exist with it. The Azotea and the coffee shop reveal themselves as two constituent parts of a larger, archipelagic whole.
Elena Lahr-Vivaz is an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at Rutgers University–Newark, where she specializes in Latin American literature and film. She is now completing a book on Cuban writers and artists, titled Writing Islands: Space and Identity in the Transnational Cuban Archipelago.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.